In their latest desperate attempt to put a stop to encryption practices that prevent their access to personal data on mobile phones, the United States government tried to use an 18th century law to get third parties to unlock mobile devices. This attempt has drawn the ire of many privacy and civil rights groups who are working very hard to protect the privacy rights of millions of Americans.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Stanford Center for Internet and Society jointly filed a request of the Freedom of Information Act in order to obtain records regarding the government’s utilization of the All Writs Act. The government has been trying to use this act to require device manufacturers to unlock secure mobile devices and grant law enforcement officials access to their contained data. The request was filed in order to expose the full extent at which the government has been trying to obtain such overbearing authority. The All Writs Act has existed since 1789.
The debate over whether or not law enforcement officials can require device manufacturers and technology giants to bypass the security protocols on their products is currently taking place in court. Last month, Apple successfully challenged an attempt by the government to get the company to unlock personal data stored on an iPhone that was protected by a password.
The government argued that the All Writs Act authorizes such an order. But, in reality, this act does not contain that power. Although the All Writs Act allows a court to issue an order to give effect to a previous lawful order or an already existing grant of authority, it has never been used in such a manner being requested by the government. The act does not allow a court to grant investigative tools to law enforcement that have not been authorized by Congress. This includes obtaining information that is privately held on secure devices.
However, the government has admitted that it has used the All Writs Act successfully in at least 70 cases, though these cases weren’t necessarily dealing with encryption. It is largely unknown what exactly happened in these 70-plus cases. In the past, the government has requested sealed court orders in unrelated cases, which has created a patchwork of documents that are difficult to trace and identify.
But perhaps most concerning is that the government tried to use the All Writs Act to bully Apple into removing its methods of privacy protection. The government is fully disregarding the public debate about encryption and trying to take measures into its own hands. The concerning issue of whether or not technology companies should be required to build “backdoors” into secure devices is meaningless to the government.
For now, American citizens have the right to know that their government is working behind their backs. This recent effort of trying to force the court into allowing their access into secure devices was largely hidden from the public. It appears that the American government doesn’t care about respecting the concerns of its citizens if it can get what it wants.